The first post suggested that what is "emptied out" in kenosis is the toxicity of the cultural hero system, the ways in which we violently secure significance and meaning. For those on "top" of the hero system this violence is perpetrated against others, psychically (e.g., rivalry, competition, feelings of pride and superiority), systemically (e.g., privilege) or physically (e.g., abuse, oppression). In these instances the "emptying out" of kenosis is experienced as a lowering, a renunciation of pride, privilege, and oppression to stand with and among "the least of these."
Kenosis from the "bottom" looks different. In this social location the hero system has been internalized to produce a violence against the self. At the bottom the hero system declares you to be "garbage" and "waste." Kenosis in this location is emptying out these toxic and internalized messages from the hero system. This emptying is psychically experienced as a "rising up," an elevation of the self to a location of worth and dignity.
In both cases, I argued, the hero system, the violent and toxic ways we secure significance and meaning, is what is being kenotically emptied out. Emptied out to experience our identities as "hidden in Christ." This being "hidden in Christ" creates a psychic buffer of protection, allowing us to become indifferent to the ways the hero systems of the world attempt to shame us or fill us with pride.
In a follow-up post I addressed the issue of kenosis and suffering. Specifically, one misapplication of kenosis occurs when we try to "convert" the victim, telling the victim that he or she must endure the abuse or oppression to "be like Jesus." What this misses is Jesus's pronouncement of blessing upon those who are abused and oppressed. This pronouncement of blessing is a "lifting up" and an "elevation." This movement parallels the Kenosis Hymn in Philippians 2. The crucified one--the victim--is lifted up, exalted and elevated to God's right hand. And in this all "crucified ones" are lifted up and elevated.
In short, the "good news" for victims isn't a sermon asking for additional suffering and additional crucifixion. Rather, the "good news" for victims is the pronouncement of blessing, lifting up and elevation. In this the cross is a bivalent symbol: a prophetic indictment against abusers and oppressors and the pronouncement of blessing and divine favor upon those being abused and oppressed.
All of the above represents my own personal reflections on this subject. I've not had much interaction with the feminist theological literature on kenosis. So I've felt the need to do more reading in this area.
What is interesting and provocative in Coakley's treatment is how she is critical of feminist treatments of kenosis as well as those treatments of kenosis from male theologians who use kenosis to describe the "weakness" of the "Crucified God." What is provocative in this dual critique is the general assumption that a vision of the "weakness" of God is an effective way to address the problems of patriarchal bullying in conceptions of God's "power." That is, it is generally assumed that one way to deal with the problem of God's "power" in the face of feminist critique is to reconceptualize God's power as "weakness." This is the move that I've generally embraced. But Coakley pronounces a pox on both houses. Both on the feminist critique of kenosis and upon the attempt to address that critique by reconceptualizing divine power as "weakness."
To get into this let's begin again with the feminist critique of kenosis, the problem I've been struggling with. Specifically, if kenosis is "letting go" of power and privilege--a descent into powerlessness and weakness--then kenosis is focused mainly upon patriarchy (and other forms of hierarchical power) and has little to say to the populations of concern to feminists, those being oppressed and abused by these power structures. In fact, to preach kenosis to the abused and oppressed leads to toxic outcomes, the valorization of victimhood which keeps the victims in their place.
One of Coakley's criticisms of this feminist critique is how it has implicitly adopted the patriarchal categories it is trying to subvert. Specifically, in this framing power is equated with masculinity and vulnerability is equated with femininity. But that framing simply doubles down on and reinforces the gendered stereotypes of power. What is needed, according to Coakley, is a vision of power and vulnerability that transcends these gendered notions, where both power and vulnerability are expected in equal measure from all.
This transcendence also has important ethical implications as it chastens the "will to power" Coakley discerns in some feminist critique. Framed another way, if victims are motivated by a "will to power" what prevents them from becoming the new abusers and oppressors when they finally do gain power? Social life in this instance reduces to various groups trying to wrest power from others. Everyone is buying into the hierarchical power arrangement seeking to knock someone off to become the new King of the Mountain.
This goes to one of Coakley's main points, the implicit rejection of vulnerability in feminist critiques of kenosis. According to Coakley, for both power and vulnerability to be redemptive what is needed is power in vulnerability. We need both. Both genders need both. But it's hard to get to that place when gendered visions of power and vulnerability are pitted against each other with "male power" set against "female vulnerability."
This brings us to Coakley's criticism of theologians who have used kenosis to redefine God's power as "weakness."
On the surface these systems seem to be a positive and helpful response to the feminist criticisms of kenosis. If we worry that God's "power" makes God an oppressive bully then we can envision kenosis as Christ "emptying" God of patriarchy. God's "power" is found in the loving weakness, vulnerability and self-donation of the cross. And again, these are notions I've greatly resonated with.
Coakley's concern with all this is when we start sliding from the ontological (God's being) to the ethical (our being like God). Specifically, while the motives behind using kenosis to redefine God's power as "weakness" are well-intentioned, problems come when we try to unpack this vision ethically. If God is "weakness" what does it mean for us to "become like God" or "be like Jesus"? Answer: we are to become "weak" like Jesus.
But suddenly the feminist criticism snaps back into view. If "being like God" is stepping into "weakness" that seems to be a perfectly fine message for oppressors and abusers. But preaching "weakness" to the abused and oppressed, it is argued, is intrinsically abusive. What the abused and oppressed need is empowerment, not sermons about "the weakness of God."
I think this is a powerful point. What Coakley is saying is that all our conversation about "the Crucified God" and the "weakness of God" isn't as helpful as we think it might be in thinking about God's power and vulnerability. The motives behind these efforts have been praiseworthy and they work well when the conversation stays at the level of abstract theology. But these visions struggle, ironically, when they are imported into locations of abuse and oppression.
If God is "weakness" how is an abused and oppressed person supposed to "be like God" in their situation? Remain "weak"?
What is going on here, according to Coakley, is the exact opposite of what is going on with the feminist critiques of kenosis. Where feminists are squeamish about vulnerability the "weakness of God" theologians are squeamish about power, divine power in particular. Power, for these theologians, is a dirty word. And that creates a problem when empowerment is what victims need the most.
Again, for Coakley what is needed is both power and vulnerability.
So, how do we get to that place?
In what I think is a fascinating move, Coakley finds answers in the patristic debates about the dual nature of Christ. Specifically, a great deal of patristic debate was how Christ could be both fully divine and fully human. How did those two "natures" get along in the same psyche?
One way some of the Church fathers dealt with this question was to argue that kenosis referred to Christ's human nature. Christ's human nature "emptied" itself of divine attributes like omnipotence and omniscience. And yet, while Christ's human nature had experienced kenosis, Christ's divine nature fully remained.
Now, how all that worked out psychologically for Jesus is a bit of a mystery and a puzzle. (As a psychologist it puzzles me greatly.) But Coakley finds wisdom in this approach in light her criticisms of the "weakness of God" theologians. Specifically, the problem with the "weakness of God" approach, according to Coakley, is how it pushes into the divine nature. Kenotic weakness is taken to be a divine attribute, God is emptied of all forms of power. And while this might seem to be a good move (I've always liked it), it raises the specter of the feminist critique regarding the need to empower victims. For some people power is a good thing.
In contrast to the "weakness of God" theologians, the patristic thinkers didn't allow kenosis to seep into the divine nature. Kenosis was restricted to Christ's human nature. Christ's human nature became "weak" but his divine nature remained "strong."
And that, for Coakley, is the key and fundamental point.
Specifically, according to Coakley the problems we are having with kenosis in these discussions is that we think that the vulnerability of kenosis is a vulnerability before human power. That's the problem when kenosis is preached to victims, that kenosis is encouraging us to submit to more human abuse. To keep taking slaps to the face.
But for Coakley kenosis isn't about vulnerability before human power--opening yourself up to get another smack in the face--but a vulnerability before divine power.
Kenosis is the human emptying to become vulnerable before God.
The key practice in this regard, for Coakley, is contemplative prayer. In contemplation the human ego is unraveled and deconstructed before the divine allowing us to let go of all the ways power and victimhood have screwed us up, both oppressed and oppressors alike.
Let me repeat that: kenosis is letting go of all the ways power and victimhood have screwed us up.
In contemplation all our twisted human visions of power and vulnerability are unraveled and deconstructed before the divine to reveal all the ways we've used power coercively or seek it out vengefully. All the ways we've neurotically twisted vulnerability into co-dependency, passivity, enablement, and the Stockholm syndrome.
In contemplation all our twisted gendered visions of power and vulnerability are unraveled and deconstructed so that power is no longer "male" and "good" and vulnerability is no longer "female" and "bad," where empowerment and loving self-giving are allowed to find their proper union and balance.
In contemplation all our twisted human visions of justice and mercy are unraveled and deconstructed before the divine so that justice is seasoned with forgiveness and reconciliation and mercy is seasoned with truth, justice and prophetic resistance.
In short, all human conceptions of power and vulnerability have to be "emptied out" before God so that "the will to power" is chastened with love and the call to vulnerability does not valorize victimhood and self-abasement.
In kenostic contemplation before the divine human visions of power and vulnerability--all the twisted and sick ways power and victimhood have screwed us up--are undone and remade in the image of God.